If you sit at the bar at Granville's long enough you'll probably hear somebody acknowledge the elephant in the room — that the only thing consistent about Granville's the last time around was its inconsistency. Now that it's open again, why should we expect things to be different?
Granville's was an adored neighborhood café for a good stretch, serving good food at reasonable prices until it shut down in May 2009 for nine months, reopened, and shut down again. They couldn't get their act together in terms of the service — and even in terms of just being consistently open for business. "Trae was trying to wear too many hats," says new co-owner Chad Murdock about co-owner Trae Wilson. Wilson focused much of his energy on the successful catering side of the business, and the restaurant suffered. But this time around, Murdock is shoring up the restaurant side of things, and Wilson is free to focus on the catering. "With our partnership, we can capitalize on this great space and make the most of both businesses," says Murdock.
Let's hope so. It'd be a shame to squander the opportunity to find success with a spot this unique and serving food this good. Granville's pretty much is the commercial center of Wagener Terrace, in a modern, window-clad former dry cleaners on the southeast corner of Rutledge and Grove. There are a handful of parking spots in front, along with a few tables on the terrace. When you walk in, you gravitate to the bar, which is lined with warm natural cypress paneling in the back and stocked with craft beer, liquor, and a varied and thoughtful wine list. The dining room is simple, with modern, straight-lined tables and chairs, tall weighty curtains, and soft lighting. The ceiling is lined with burlap over acoustic tile, so talking is easy and background noise muted.
Owen Gaube, a former sous chef at Trattoria Lucca, is at the helm in the kitchen. Murdock says the new menu is a little more contemporary, but otherwise it's hard to put a finger on exactly what kind of cooking they do at Granville's. "We thought about it as a gastro pub identity, but we're not a pub. It's kind of American eclectic, Southern food with French technique, but not traditionally Southern."
They're not only trying to buy local, but also to buy smart. "We're still navigating our purveyors," says Murdock, "but we're definitely focused on doing local, sustainable food."
The menu is straightforward and creative, recently featuring snacks like truffled deviled eggs, parmesan french fries, warm cannellini bean purée, and roasted cauliflower with mustard and cheddar ($4 to $5). Small plates range from arugula and roasted grape salad to fried green tomatoes, PEI mussels, a burger, and a crispy pork belly ($6 to $10). Dinner plates tend towards fare like pulled pork with a red onion and cucumber salad, a sirloin with spinach and potatoes, fried catfish with blue cheese coleslaw and remoulade, and a pasta ($18 to $22). The menu is measured but hits bold notes, and that's reflected in the quality of the execution.
The hand-cut garlic and parmesan fries ($8) are a satisfying and indulgent starter, really crisp on the outside, tender and almost cake-like on the inside, and scattered with granules of parmesan, fresh herbs, and fresh ground black pepper, piled around a ramekin of tart and creamy grain mustard aioli for dipping, an elevated but unpretentious standard. The spiced butternut squash soup ($6) with wildflower honey, crème fraiche, and chives is expertly done, full of earthy and complex winter squash flavor, tinged with cinnamon and nutmeg. The heat of cayenne and Sriracha is tempered with the sweetness of honey and the cooling crème fraiche. The linguine with clams ($18) is another winner. Littlenecks are cooked with white wine, jalapeños, garlic, butter, and fresh herbs, and tossed with a steaming pile of to-the-tooth linguine. The jalapeños are a great addition, pointing up the dish's simple flavors with just enough heat and chile flavor to leave your noodle-smeared lips tingling. This is what a neighborhood café should be, with the kind of unassuming but smart food a great cook might make at home.
The roasted cauliflower ($5) snack is another dish that reveals Gaube's culinary deft: cauliflower is cooked until caramelized to bring out its inherent sweetness and paired with a couple of well-chosen flavor matches in cheddar cheese and mustard. It'll convert those who don't think they like cauliflower. The mussels ($10) with red curry coconut broth, cilantro, and lime are as good as mussels get — and one of the few Asian twists on the menu. You could do a lot worse than finding yourself sopping up a briny mussel-flavored and hot curry broth with a torn piece of crusty grilled bread, and washing it all down with a swig of crisp Gruner Veltliner.
The dinner plates also reveal savvy conception and cooking in an unpretentious way. The huge Eden Farms pork chop ($22) is stuffed with fontina and sage, pan-roasted to medium and served alongside creamy grits and collard greens — a time-tested match of pork, greens, and grits but imbued with an indulgent cue from the Italians in fontina and sage. The slow-braised beef "borg" (shorthand for bourguignon) is ridiculously good, braised all night long in veal broth and mirepoix until it's dark as night, totally tender, slightly sticky, and as beefy as can be. It's worth mentioning here that while chefs can get overly aggressive with the salt, mostly seasoning for the short-term impact of the first bite, Gaube obviously understands that a little restraint with the salt makes the first bite good and the remaining bites better and better, so that the salt enhances but doesn't mask underlying flavors.
And what about the service, that thing that almost brought Granville's down before? I almost didn't notice it, which is to say it was ideal. Both at the bar and in the dining room. the servers were ready with recommendations, eager to please, and just plain nice, and attentive enough to let us enjoy the meal but still meet our needs.
Murdock says that soon they want Granville's to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday through Friday, dinner Saturday, and brunch and dinner Sunday. Hopefully they'll scale up while keeping the food and service in tact. My guess is they will. "The main thrust of our restaurant is to be a neighborhood restaurant, to be available," Murdock says. "It's really about providing a service for people — and it's a big responsibility." As far as I can tell, that sentiment permeates everything about Granville's and it will make people from the neighborhood and beyond feel at home for some time to come.